Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 | 5:20 p.m.
Barricades were up and police presence was down, but so was business in several east Fremont Street bars last Friday night.
Some say that’s the price of success on the first Friday of the month, which has grown in popularity in the redeveloping Fremont East Entertainment District stretching east from Las Vegas Boulevard toward Maryland Parkway.
Michael Cornthwaite, owner of the Downtown Cocktail Room, just south of Fremont on Las Vegas Boulevard, said business was not good. But he didn’t complain. For several months, crowds on the streets for one night per month had grown so large, he said, “it was getting dangerous.”
Jennifer Metzger said customer traffic was off, too, but she had a theory that Halloween the night before, and the Life is Beautiful festival the weekend before, drained the energy from people who otherwise might have come out Friday night.
“It was good but it was hardly any people,” said Metzger, who owns Vanguard Lounge, adding that Halloween “was insane — we were open until 5 or 6 in the morning.”
Like Cornthwaite, she shuddered to think of the alternative. “If something happened down here, (business) would be so much worse.”
Thoughts of the alternative have driven police and barricades onto the street these last few months. As a result, police arrests and issued citations have dropped to almost unreportable levels.
It wasn’t that way just a few months ago.
The popularity of east Fremont Street grew as the popularity of the First Friday art walk, a mile to the southwest, grew. The art walk now draws some 25,000 to 30,000 people one night a month.
Police wouldn’t speculate why, but as First Friday grew so did the crowds of people hanging out on east Fremont Street, many of them bringing their own liquor, then hanging out by the hundreds on the sidewalk of a one-block street of road with 11 bars and bar/restaurants and one casino.
Businesses began to worry, as did police, that the combination of alcohol and so many people could end up in fights or worse.
Then a shooting occurred but not on east Fremont Street; it was a few blocks west under the Fremont Street Experience canopy, where many hundreds more people, many of them tourists, do their partying. Within months, two people were also stabbed. No one died and the public relations damage was minimal.
Police poured forces into the area, with upwards of 60 officers — in plainclothes, on horseback, in uniform and in special teams to identify underage drinkers — combing the area that one night each month.
The numbers stayed high. Drinkers with 12-packs hung out on the street. Police checked IDs and found most were 21 or over.
Police tried different tactics. They set up cattle guards that forced people to show ID cards before entering the street. The temporary barricades were also installed around the Fremont Street Experience. The Las Vegas City Council enacted a modified curfew prohibiting those under 18 from being in the area after 9 p.m., with a $300 fine attached.
In October, youngsters stayed away. Arrests dropped dramatically.
Last Friday appeared to result in more of the same, from several accounts and photos shared with the Sun.
Chris LaPorte, owner of Insert Coin(s), who has not been a vocal supporter of the increased police presence, said today that after three years on east Fremont Street, “I hope this emerging business community hasn’t lost sight of what this district is supposed to be.”
Under former Mayor Oscar Goodman, the city created the Fremont East Entertainment District, christening its neon signage and newly paved roads and sidewalks in August 2007. They also enacted ordinances to draw business to the area, including the elimination of a very costly liquor license fee; in return, bars in the area have to be geared toward entertainment and cannot install slot machines.
In those early days, people talked eagerly of the street turning into something like New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, a place filled with bars, restaurants and live music.
Two months ago, however, Capt. Shawn Anderson, who oversees the Downtown Area Command, said that after meeting with business owners, “it came down to us determining it was time for us to draw a line in the sand and that this was not going to become Bourbon Street.”
Police and business owners meet again this week to talk about Friday night and whether the current plan needs any changes, Metzger said.
Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.